What Is a Clean Title?

Last Updated on May 8, 2023

When shopping for used cars, you’ll find most vehicles advertised with a “clean title.”

A clean title means the car has never been deemed a total loss. Most cars have clean titles.

The term is slightly misleading: a car with a clean title means it has never been involved in a serious accident. However, many cars have clean titles and have still been involved in accidents.

In fact, many cars with clean titles have serious issues lurking below the surface.

What is a clean title? How do clean titles impact car insurance and car value? Find out today.

Clean Titles Explained

A clean title is a term indicating a vehicle has never been involved in a total loss accident.

A total loss accident is any accident where the damage to the vehicle exceeds the value of the vehicle. If you roll your car over, for example, and cause $20,000 of damage, then your car may be a total loss. You’ve done more damage to your vehicle than your car is worth, so it’s a total loss.

Generally, a clean title means that the vehicle has never been involved in a serious accident. Clean titles can also indicate the vehicle has never been used as a fleet vehicle.

If a vehicle has been involved in a total loss accident, then it’s known as a salvage car. These cars have a branded title or salvage title.

Other types of branded titles include lemon, flood, and irreparable branded titles.

What Is a Car Title?

All cars have a title. The car’s title is a certificate stating the legal owner of the vehicle. Each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles issues titles to drivers. If you transfer ownership of the car, you hand over the title or receive a certificate of title.

If you are leasing or financing a vehicle, then your bank owns the title of your vehicle. Once you pay off your vehicle, the bank transfers the title to you, and you hold the car title.

A car’s title typically lists things like:

  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
  • The year, make, model, and series of the vehicle
  • The license plate number of the vehicle
  • The date the title was issued
  • The owner or lienholder of the vehicle

Car title information varies from state to state.

Clean Titles Could Hide Serious Problems

When you browse used car listings, you’ll find most listings have clean titles.

Naturally, people assume that vehicles with clean titles are safer to drive than vehicles without clean titles. Some assume that vehicles with clean titles have never been in an accident or undergone any type of repairs.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case: many cars with clean titles have had serious issues. They’re still considered clean title cars, but they have serious issues.

A car could have all of the following problems while still considered a clean title vehicle:

Mechanical Problems: Cars with clean titles could have mechanical problems. These aren’t insurable concerns. A car might have a higher risk of engine failure or transmission issues, for example. You can’t make an insurance claim for mechanical problems. You might buy a car with a clean title only to discover it has a broken-down powertrain.

A History of Minor to Major Accidents: Your car might have numerous accidents on its record while still maintaining a clean title. A car with a clean title could have had tens of thousands of dollars in repairs. Once the car is sufficiently repaired, it’s still insured with a clean title.

Bad Repairs: Instead of making an insurance claim after an accident, a driver might pay for repairs in cash to avoid higher premiums. That means cars with a clean title could have bad repair jobs. Someone might have hastily repaired body damage for cash after a collision, for example. The car has a clean title – but it also has serious issues due to the low-quality repairs.

Types of Branded Titles

States use different title brands to refer to vehicles.

If your car was damaged in a flood, for example, then it might have a flood title brand. A vehicle used as part of a fleet or a vehicle damaged in a total loss incident have different title brands.

Branded titles vary from state to state. Some are more common than others. The most-used title brands include:

Salvage: Vehicles with a salvage title have been severely damaged. The insurance company has checked the damage and determined it was a total loss, so the vehicle now has a salvage title brand.

Irreparable Title: A car damaged by fire, flood, or another natural disaster may be considered irreparable. These vehicles are also known under junk or scrap titles.

Flood: If a car was damaged in a flood, then it has a flood title brand.

Junk: Junk title brands are for cars that can only be sold for parts and scrap. The car is not typically driveable. Some states also use title brands like totaled, dismantled, or scrap to refer to these vehicles.

Fleet: If your vehicle was used as part of a fleet, then it could have a fleet title brand. Vehicles used as part of a taxi fleet, law enforcement, government organization, or rental car agency may have a fleet title brand.

Rebuilt: If someone repairs a salvaged vehicle, then it may have a rebuilt title brand. The state now considers this vehicle driveable. Some states use reconstructed, repaired, or reconditioned title brands to refer to these vehicles.

Lemon: A vehicle with a lemon title brand has been confirmed to be a lemon based on state laws. Requirements vary, but most states require a vehicle to have been inoperable for more than 30 days to carry a lemon title brand. If a vehicle has been repaired multiple times and continues to be affected by the same issues, then it might have a lemon title brand.

How Title Washing Works

A clean title can hide serious issues. Title washing makes things even more challenging.

Title washing occurs when a vehicle with a branded title (like any of the branded titles listed above) is re-registered in another state with a clean title.

Let’s say your car is damaged in a hurricane in Louisiana. Your car has significant flood damage and now has a flood title brand. You drive across the border to Texas, then re-register your car with a clean title.

Title washing is illegal. However, it can be tough to spot – especially if states don’t share driving data.

How to Buy the Right Car

You might assume clean title cars are better than other cars. Sometimes, that’s true – but clean titles can also hide serious problems.

To buy the right car, consider hiring a trusted mechanic. Ask a certified mechanic to inspect the car before you buy it. It might cost a few hundred dollars today, but it could save you thousands of dollars in future repair bills.

Other Frequently Asked Questions About Clean Titles

Final Word – Clean Titles

Clean titles show a vehicle has not been involved in a severe incident – like a flood, a fire, or a total loss accident.

Most vehicles have clean titles. Some drivers assume a clean title proves the car is safe to drive and accident-free. However, that’s not always the case.

Do your research and consider bringing a mechanic with you when shopping for used cars with clean titles.

James Shaffer
James Shaffer James Shaffer is a writer for InsurancePanda.com and a well-seasoned auto insurance industry veteran. He has a deep knowledge of insurance rules and regulations and is passionate about helping drivers save money on auto insurance. He is responsible for researching and writing about anything auto insurance-related. He holds a bachelor's degree from Bentley University and his work has been quoted by NBC News, CNN, and The Washington Post.
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